The Chinese navy has seized an underwater drone in plain sight of the American sailors who had deployed it in international waters, in a seemingly brazen message to the incoming Trump administration.
According to a US defence official, the unmanned glider had come to the surface of the water in the South China Sea and was about to be retrieved by the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic and surveillance ship, when a Chinese naval vessel that had been shadowing the Bowditch put a small boat in the water.
Chinese sailors in the small boat came alongside the drone and grabbed it despite the radioed protests from the Bowditch that it was US property in international waters. The incident happened about 100 miles north-west of the Philippines’ port of Subic Bay.
The US has issued a formal protest and demanded the return of the glider.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Bowditch made radio contact with the Chinese ship and asked for the glider to be returned. “The radio contact was acknowledged by the [Chinese] navy ship, but the request was ignored,” Cook said.
“The UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] is a sovereign immune vessel of the United States. We call upon China to return our UUV immediately, and to comply with all of its obligations under international law.”
The aggressive Chinese gesture comes at a time of rising tensions between China and the US in the South China Sea, where Beijing has claimed ownership of a number of reefs and small islands – which it is in the process of militarising – while the US navy has been conducting patrols nearby to assert freedom of navigation in the sea lanes.
The tension has spiked since Donald Trump was elected in November. The US president-elect quickly broke a 37-year protocol by taking a call from the president of Taiwan, and openly questioned Washington’s longstanding “one China” policy that does not recognise Taiwan as a separate state. Beijing has signalled it would respond dramatically if Trump implements a break in policy once he takes office on 20 January. In recent days, China has conducted bomber patrols close to Taiwan in a flexing of its military muscle.